Leaving Saint Petersburg for Moscow recently, I needed to determine whether our train tickets were for an assigned seat in a specific car, or if it was open seating. Unfortunately, I didn’t know the word for “assigned,” or even a close approximation for “open seating.”
“Hello, can I sit where I want?” I asked the attendant standing outside the train in Russian.
“Nyet,” he answered. No.
“Ah … is there a difference, where I sit?” I continued.
“Umm … I’m going to sit here?” I said, pointing at the car directly behind him.
“Nyet,” he answered, and then directed me to a location three cars back, where I eventually found our assigned seat.
The above exchange should have been easier for someone whose first language was, in fact, Russian.
And sure, I still “speak” it. That is, I probably speak it better than you do—unless you, too, are Russian. But really, saying I "speak" it is the same sort of linguistic hubris that we Americans exhibit once we’ve managed to cobble together just a few foreign words—like putting “francophone” in your Twitter bio as soon as you can order a croissant and ask where the bathroom is.
I can maneuver my way around most Russian situations. Before long, though, I'll come across some roadblock—like, say, "roadblock"—try to translate it literally from English—road block ... daroga kvartal?— fail, and have to admit to myself and the Russians around me that I'm only semifluent at best. (Roadblock, by the way, is dorozhnoye zagrazhdeniye.)
Earlier this month I returned to Russia for the first time in 25 years. In 1989 my parents packed two suitcases, renounced their Soviet citizenship, and took me to Leningrad’s Pulkovo Airport for my first plane ride. We were bound, eventually, for a new life in the U.S.
Why go back now? For a journalist, it's certainly an interesting time to be in Russia. My grandma, though perfectly healthy, is 83 and “waiting for death,” as she likes to remind us. Plus, you know how Russians love melodrama: There’s something uniquely momentous about seeing the same city at two points in time, exactly a quarter-century apart.
I did speak Russian really well, once. By all accounts, as a toddler I was the Stalin of the playground, issuing directives to my tiny comrades as my grandma watched, pleased, from a nearby bench. Shortly after we immigrated, in my Texas preschool, I would patiently implore my overseers to please explain in Russian their command to “sit Indian style.”
The fact that I had learned the language early might be the only reason I remember any of it at all. It’s easier for kids to learn languages because their brains are more plastic—they have a great number of connections between neurons. People who begin learning a language as children usually reach a higher level of proficiency than those who start as adults.
But I haven’t spoken Russian with any regularity since I was in my early teens, when, tired of middle-school ostracism, I decided to become as Americanized as possible. Many psychologists think that we forget languages, and other things, because of "disuse"—the memories that we don’t try to recall very frequently become more deeply buried over time. Which explains why, even though you once aced your French midterm, you can no longer remember how to declare that you would like to go parasailing with Jean-Claude this weekend.
Other studies have shown that forgetting a native language might be an adaptive strategy that helps us learn a second one. In a 2007 study, "native English speakers who had completed at least one year of college-level Spanish were asked to repeatedly name objects in Spanish. The more the students were asked to repeat the Spanish words, the more difficulty they had generating the corresponding English labels for the objects." That is to say, the better I became at English, the more my brain suppressed the Russian inside me.
This trip would be the first time I spoke exclusively Russian for multiple days, or spoke the language at length to people who aren't related to me. Before I left, I tried to find comfort in the fact that though my speech is now shaky, I understand Russian perfectly, which is true, and by telling myself that “everyone there speaks English these days.” That part is false.
I arrived at Pulkovo Airport two weeks ago with my boyfriend Rich, who is as American as an apple pie baked into the shape of a baseball and then fired out of a concealed handgun. He and I waltzed through passport check with nary a raised eyebrow from the control officers. I ordered us a cab to the hotel entirely in Russian, and as a result was feeling pretty much like the Queen of Russia. (Sorry, tsaritsa.)
I can break down the ensuing things that went wrong into roughly three Rumsfeldian categories:
1) Words I did not know that I did not know.
2) Words I knew I did not know, and would never remember.
3) Words I did not know, and would later remember, but it wouldn’t matter anyway.
Research shows that trying to remember words in a foreign language improves brain function because it exercises things like task-switching and working memory. I guess the silver lining of what I experienced is that I’m now probably 800 percent smarter.
We're sitting in a cafe with my cousin, who has lived in Leningrad/Saint Petersburg her entire life. She is offering Rich more food. He says, “I’m full” in English, and I try to teach him the words for “I’m full” in Russian, because I enjoy feeling smarter than others.
“Sut,” I say—full—remembering a word from childhood refusals to eat more buckwheat kasha. There’s no English letter for the “u” sound there, but it resembles the noise you’d make if you experienced a tremendous blow to the stomach.
“Sit,” he says.
I look at my cousin, who is turning red. “Actually,” she tells me in Russian, “that word can mean something else.”
Apparently the word I had been broadcasting to the entire restaurant is prison slang for “pissing from fright.”
“Ya nayelsa,” my cousin tells Rich gently. I have eaten enough.
In the mornings, me and my dozen or so Russian nouns and verbs are like an eager dogsled team, under-provisioned but scrappy. We mush all day through get-togethers with distant relatives and family friends, nobly running a race we know we probably can’t win. This palace is “ochen krasivoy” (very beautiful) but this painting is “ochen intersniy” (very interesting). Repeat as needed.
I was surprised how exhausting it can be to operate in an unfamiliar tongue. By the end of the day, my word-dogs and I yearned to stop. I would run out of things to deem “beautiful” or “interesting.” My tongue felt fat, and my already half-assedly rolled “rs” started getting straight-up swapped for the American kind.
As the psychologist Francois Grosjean points out, learning and forgetting a language are two sides of the same mental process, but people tend to be much prouder of the former than the latter. "People who are in an extended process of forgetting a language avoid using it because they no longer feel sure about it and they do not want to make too many mistakes," Grosjean wrote recently. "If they do have to use it, they may cut short a conversation so as not to have to show openly how far the attrition has progressed."
Eventually I’d take the linguistic back seat, allowing others around me to talk as I nodded politely along. Do I have an opinion about something? My opinion is “da.”
This vocab-delimited apathy led to some uncomfortable outcomes. Touring a church with a family friend, I asked what a certain icon represented. He seemed surprised I didn’t know.
“I don’t know, I’m not a believer,” I said, without thinking about how many complicated sentences of explanation this admission would prompt.
“What do you mean?!” he asked, aghast.
“Surely you don’t think the earth was created from nothing? Surely you see that there’s a divine mind behind all of this!” he said, sweeping his hands past the brightly painted walls, which depicted saints mid-torture.
I scrambled for the words for “Big Bang” or “evolution” before realizing it was hopeless.
I shrugged and smiled, as if to say, “you’re probably right.”
Having changed my religion, I moved on to the more complicated task of ordering a coffee refill. I’m not sure why I thought a cafe that charges for a tablespoon of sour cream would give away coffee by the mug. I did nevertheless summon the gall to turn to our waitress, who was already scowling, and say:
“Hello. Can I please have more coffee without paying?”
Her scowl deepened.
“That is to say, can I please have … a raise?”
She walked away.
There are two measures of memory: storage strength—how well something was learned—and retrieval strength—how easily it can be recalled. Storage strength is partly determined by how connected a memory is with other elements of a person's past. Your childhood address might have low retrieval strength, but high storage strength, while the room number of a hotel you're staying in might have the opposite. The more storage strength a memory has, the easier it is to re-learn the information.
If someone came up and told you your childhood address again, “you would have the feeling that that information was somewhere in the recesses of your memory, and in fact, you would be likely to relearn it very quickly,” writes the lab of the UCLA cognitive psychologist Robert Bjork.
And indeed, some researchers think that forgetting information and later relearning it can actually be useful—the knowledge comes back in stronger the second time around.
“Disuse causes things to become inaccessible, but they remain in memory,” Bjork explained recently. “Forgetting creates the opportunity to reach additional levels of learning. If I re-present the information, I'll get a larger boost.”
By the end of my time in Saint Petersburg, my poor Russian huskies were panting with exhaustion, refusing to go any further.
“Is there a where that I can abandon my bag?” I asked the information clerk at the train station, not even trying.
Without looking up, he pointed us to the luggage check.
In the luggage room, my head was whirring with newly acquired Russian words—dostopremechantelnasty (tourist sites)—and anxiety—Don’t people get stabbed on Russian trains? I feel like I saw that in a movie. Will they have snacks? Will I know how to ask for the snacks?
I was so distracted that, after ordering two lockers from the luggage-room attendant, I handed him 1,000 rubles ($29) for a 190 ruble ($5) tab.
It wasn’t until after we were outside that I realized I had forgotten to take my change.
“It’s probably not worth going back,” I told Rich. “I don’t even know how to explain why I forgot to collect it, and how do I prove to him that I gave him 1,000?”
As one of my final acts of Russian speaking, though, I decided to give it a shot.
“Excuse me, but I think I forgot to take my change,” I told him over the loud techno blasting from a radio behind his sad, subterranean desk.
Wordlessly, he handed me the exact amount he owed.
Outside, I couldn’t help but feel like somehow I had improved. “What’s Russian for ‘easy mode?’” I asked Rich, and we got on the train.